Have you ever been to an event where you were in a large crowd and you couldn’t quite see the action, the reason for which so many people have gathered. In fact, you probably have and I was that person right in front of you. I remember as a child finding myself frequently in that situation. This story, first off, looks like that. It’s a man eager to see something, yet unable, so he climbs a tree. But, his life is changed because the action came to him. In order to really understand what that transformation was, we have to look not only at the city, why are all these people here, who are all these people, but also who is Zacchaeus. Why did Jesus choose him to come into his home? Because he climbed a tree to see Jesus? Seems unlikely. Because he was a tax collector? No, there were many tax collectors. Because he was chief of tax collectors? Now there might be the reason. Exactly what does that entail though? We need to look more closely at Zacchaeus to understand the power of this story.
Zacchaeus was a chief of tax collectors. We’ve been hearing a lot of stories about tax collectors recently, such as last week when Deacon Pam preached on the Pharisee and Tax Collector. She taught us a little about tax collectors in those days, but for those of you who weren’t here last week I will give a little background. In Jesus’ time, the Hebrews were under Roman rule. The Hebrews who consider themselves the chosen people of God, were subjugated under the rule of the pagan Romans. The most obvious sign of this submission of the Jews to the Romans were the countless taxes imposed on the Jews by their conquerors. In fact, we see this in the Gospels. The Pharisees and Sadduccees were always trying to trap Jesus. In a clever trap they asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Ceaser?” They knew that if he said no, they could set the Romans against him for unlawfulness. They also knew, if he said yes, that he would be discredited amongst the Hebrews to whom he preached.
Historians tell us that in Judea, the Romans recruited tax collectors from the moral outcasts of the Hebrew society, from Jews who agreed to work for the Romans to force their brethren to pay tribute to Rome. In fact, if this sounds bad, it gets worse. Not only did these tax collectors serve Rome’s interests, levying taxes on their own brethren, but out of greed they included an extra levy to become rich themselves.
So here we have Zaccaheus. He is not just a tax collector, but a chief among them. He has sworn a pagan oath, has exploited his countryman to his own advantage, an the Gospel accounts he was a rich man. Behold: Zaccaheus!
So, we are in Jericho at Passover. It is significant that this encounter is in Jericho, even though Jesus was only passing through the city itself. There were two main highways in Israel at this time, one of which went right through Jericho. Taking the road through Jericho was the safest for Jews, so that Samaria could be avoided altogether. At Passover time, tens of thousands of Jewish pilgrims would have followed that very road through Jericho. Jesus was making that same trip, journeying from Galilee, coming through Jericho, to Jerusalem for Passover. Researchers estimate that two to three million people showed up for the Passover in that time, and Jericho was not unlike the customs station– where thousands of Jews paid toll taxes on every cow and camel that journeyed with them.
By this time, Jesus was famous or notorious enough that his passing through would not be unmarked. There is no indication, however, that he was warmly received by the people at Jericho. In fact, throughout the Gospels, as he journeys he is frequently confronted by Pharisees and Sadducees trying to question and corner him within view of the crowds. If they were prowling about small towns in search of heretics, surely the Pharisees and Sadducees were near, here in this large town of Jericho. I suspect that people were gathering not only to see the infamous Jesus of Nazareth, but to see if there would be that duel of words between Jesus and doctors of the Torah. Surely the Pharisees had their challenges ready, and like Zacchaeus were striving to draw near to Christ.
Now Jesus, always has a way of outwitting the Pharisees and their collaborators. In fact, some of the most clever, witty, playful, brilliant things he says were in response to one of their traps. “Should we pay taxes to Caeser?” Jesus’ reply, “Render to Caeser to Caeser and to God what’s Gods.” It’s brilliant! Time and time again he outwits them. And now here, a curve ball. Rather than allow them to take the initiative, Jesus pitches first. This pitch, however, stops the Jericho debate before it even begins.
Here’s Zacchaeus in the tree. Scoping out Jesus, eager to watch whatever excitement ensues. Zacchaeus, hated by everyone. He who, as one commentator writes, “was treading the downtrodden down.” In other accounts, Jesus associates with an adulterous woman and those who are possessed. Surely, in such a crowd there were some. But here, he targets Zacchaeus, who undoubtedly was the communal scapegoat of Jericho, despised by all.
And Jesus does not tell him “Repent and follow me.” Jesus, unlike his previous encounter with a man identified as rich, does not tell him, “Give all you have to the poor and follow me.” Jesus first asks to allow him to come into his home. Jesus doesn’t give him a challenge. Jesus doesn’t force Zacchaeus to meet him half way– you do your part, repent and be changed, and I’ll do mine, come into your home and into your life. Rather, he immediately associates with him on a more intimate level, to the condemnation of the crowds, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Jesus has tainted himself, by associating in this way with the sinner of sinners in this town.
I have heard many evangelical preachers, and even some Anglicans or Catholics, express this notion, “God will meet you halfway.” You do your part to go halfway, and God will meet you there. I think Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus dismantles that idea. The block is never at God’s end. As if God can only go only go 50% and is suddenly stalled, stopped in His tracks. The simple act of Jesus coming into Zacchaeus’ home, indicates that if we open the doors of our lives up to God even a little, even a little crevice of curiosity like Zacchaeus must have had, that is enough for God’s love to flood in. Indeed, God does not meet us half way, but meets us where we need him, where we open our lives to him, in that place where we will most be transformed. In this story, Zacchaeus is, indeed, transformed. This transformation through the encounter of Jesus’ loving kindness is marked by Zacchaeus repenting and repaying those whom he had cheated, and giving half of his wealth to the poor.
Sixteenth century mystic, Saint John of the Cross, spoke of a ‘self-bestowing God who gives where he finds space and who works in the darkness to create space.’ St. John of the Cross was absolutely convinced of the reliable love of God, and that God is at work in all areas of our life, even at work in our suffering, creating space for God’s spirit to indwell.
John teaches that when we are faced with insurmountable pain, the inability to heal ourselves, utter powerlessness and lack of control, we are called to surrender to God and it is precisely in that place of utter emptiness that God’s Spirit is given space to inflow our being. In his book Impact of God, Iain Matthew writes, “The world’s wounds are spaces through which God may graciously enter,” and Saint John states this a little differently in a letter to a nun, “God’s immense blessings can only fit into a heart that is empty.”
Zacchaeus’ encounter with Christ, and transformation in opening his home to the Holy One of Israel, prods us to reflect on our own lives and ways in which we can let God into those dark spaces where we feel powerless. For the Christian, the indwelling of God’s spirit is a constantly unfolding journey, not a one-time experience. At baptism we are marked and sealed by the Holy Spirit; at confirmation; again if one is ordained; and every Sunday we are indwelt by Christ’s own self through the Sacrament of His body and blood. It is an ongoing journey, even as we leave this sanctuary. It is my prayer that like Zacchaeus we may open our home, indeed, our heart to Christ’s indwelling love ever more fully.
© The Rev. Justin R. Cannon